Sports Supplements …. Friend, Folly or Foe?

The Australian Institute of Sport in conjunction with Sports Dietitians Australia recently held a 2-day symposium on Sports Supplements in Canberra. The Athletes Kitchen attended on mass, keen to be across the latest information for their clients and athletes.

The presentations were very entertaining and informative. Some were real eye openers, particularly those looking at the use of supplements from a coach and an athlete perspective. They highlighted the need to manage the use of sports supplements as a team and to look after the health and well being of athletes as a priority. Vigorous discussion around this topic highlighted the passion of those involved but also showed the need for awareness of the health, psychological and performance issues surrounding the use of sports supplements.

So what is a sports supplement?

A good question, but not one that is easily answered.

One definition put forward is that of a product used to improve or enhance athletic (and in some cases psychological) performance.

Most athletes, and any anyone involved with sport, would agree that the world of sports supplements is overwhelming. There are walls of supplements in supermarkets and in an increasing number and variety of shops selling these products that promise so much.

Speakers highlighted the size of the supplement industry and the growing marketing efforts on packaging, in magazines and on websites all aimed at encouraging vulnerable people to buy these products.

How do I decide if Supplements are for me?

Look very carefully at what the product is claiming it will do for you and ask your self a few questions:

  • Will this hurt me? Are there risks to my health if I take this?
  • Is this relevant to me? Does it promise to deliver something useful to me?
  • Who is telling me what the product does? Is it anecdotal or has it been tested in a more scientific manner?
  • For elite athletes: what is in the product? Is there a possibility it contains banned substances?

What is the ‘Belief Effect’?

The symposium highlighted a ‘belief effect’, which meant that just believing a supplement will make you feel better or perform better often leads to improvements.  Research has supported this finding, using ‘placebo’ medication (or sugar tablets) versus the supplement medication. Participants receiving placebo medication but believing they were receiving the supplement performed better than those receiving the supplement but believing they were receiving the placebo. Multiple studies support this finding and highlight the power of ‘belief ‘ for performance.

The ‘up shot”

So what does all of this mean for athletes and any active person looking at using sports supplements?  Think about using food first and then “supplement” with supplements if you need extra nutritional support. Ask questions about what it does?, where it comes from?, what it is made from?, what are the ingredients?, are the ingredients safe/banned?, is it relevant to you?…before you spend your money on something that does not deliver what it promises.  And in the case of elite athletes, seek the advice of your team doctor or dietitian to reduce the risk of testing positive to a banned substance.

Rebecca Hay, Accredited Sports Dietitian, The Athletes Kitchen